University of Texas at Austin
France today is coming to terms with shifts in the composition of its population that are the result of immigration from its former colonies during the 1960s and 1970, most notably Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Because of this immigration, a significant portion of France's population, particularly those under 40, is made up of children and grandchildren of North African immigrants--a population often referred to as the "Beurs." For this part of the French population, life is often experienced as a sort of permanent exile. Overt racism and an unspoken assumption about their permanent status as foreigners block any complete identification with France, while at the same time unfamiliarity with the Maghreb prevents many Beurs from feeling as though they have a native culture or country in the homeland of their parents or grandparents. This experience of isolation and exile is explored in Paul Smaïl's 1997 novel, Vivre me tue. Like the works of other Beur writers such as Azouz Begag, Mehdi Charef and Leïla Houari, Smaïl's novel occupies an ambiguous space between fiction and autobiography. Such ambiguity is reflective of the unease about identity triggered by the permanent limbo of life as an "outsider". Furthermore, like the works of other Beur writers, Vivre me tue explores and cries out for the opening up of French paradigms of identity so as to include this new "lost" generation.
At the core of Paul Smaïl's narrative are an acute awareness and an open condemnation of France's blindness to its own history. This blindness manifests itself in the incapacity of many French people to consider those of non-European descent to be French. As historian Gérard Noiriel has asserted, underlying beliefs in the existence of an ethnically French people and a strongly assimilationist model of French citizenship interact to create an idea of national identity that regards any mark of difference as one of foreigness. Previous generations of immigrants from Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe became indistinguishable from the French population within one generation because they bore no physical marks of "otherness," and therefore, their presence did not call into question French models of nationality. Many Beurs, however, are identifiable because of the color of their skin. Thus, whatever their citizenship or country of origin, those of Maghrebi descent are frequently perceived as foreigners in France. As a result, checks of identity papers and difficulty in gaining employment and housing are commonplace occurrences for the Beurs. Moreover, such discrimination is not typically viewed as racist, but is instead seen as a natural reaction to a perceived refusal on the part of those of Maghrebi origin to "integrate" into French culture.
Vivre me tue is written to counter assumptions that the status of Beurs as outsiders in French culture is self-imposed. To that end, Paul Smaïl demonstrates through his narrative what Alec G. Hargreaves has elsewhere argued--that the obstacles to the "integration" of the Beurs lie in the attitudes and behavior of the French themselves. The text can best be described as the struggle of one young French/Moroccan to come to terms with a cultural split that he reads as responsible for the deaths of his father, brother, uncle and grandfather. From its first page, the novel explores the emotional and psychological exile that results from being French of Maghrebi descent. The first line of the novel, "Call me Smaïl", links the author/narrator to two key figures of displacement and exile--Ishmael, the biblical son of Abraham, and Ishmael, the narrator of Melville's Moby Dick. This double identification shapes the narrative, as these two figures recur throughout the text. The end result is that both the biblical Ishmael--exiled and cast out into the desert by his own father--and Melville's Ishmael--the only survivor of a fruitless quest--come to stand for the inability of the Beurs to find a space for themselves, either in French culture or in the cultures of their parents.
Smaïl follows the first line with a meditation on the cultural split inherent in his name: Paul, "a very common Christian name" and Smaïl, which he "spits[s] out in Arabic" to demonstrate his disdain for a culture that he has, to some degree, internalized. He notes that he has tried pronouncing his last name "smile", as in English, in order to prevent potential employers from discovering that he is Beur, and he admits to doctoring the photograph on his identity card and erasing the dieresis in his name to further disguise his identity--a strategy that works, he says, until he has to present himself "in flesh and bone... as an Arab, in other words".  On many levels, Smaïl's efforts to change his name and the photograph on his identity papers represent a desire and a willingness on the part of the Beurs to be seen as French. The fact that Paul's father gave him a French name, for example, demonstrates the efforts of immigrant parents to have children who are fully "French," even down to their names. What is more, the deformation of the picture on the identity card signifies the measures taken by many to blend into the population at large. Paul's act of altering his picture metaphorically mirrors his younger brother Daniel's efforts to transform himself by dying his hair blond and by bodybuilding. Scarred emotionally by the racism he experiences as a child, Daniel begins bodybuilding, hoping to change himself into a man French society will accept. At the same time, Daniel is critical of and rejects anything to do with his Moroccan heritage. Thus, Daniel is consumed by a desire to be French that leads him to deny absolutely the culture of his parents and to do everything in his power to make himself conform to standards of "Frenchness." All of this clearly undercuts the assumption that the inability of Beurs to integrate stems from an unwillingness to do so.
Daniel's behavior, however, is presented by the text as more than an expression of a desire to belong; his search for the perfect body leads him to take steroids, and these ultimately lead to his death. In this way, Daniel's acts of dying his hair and transforming his body are seen to be manifestations of an underlying self-hatred that results from living in a culture that rejects him. Thus, racism is shown by the text to be not only emotionally damaging, but lethal. Furthermore, Smaïl refers to Daniel throughout the novel as "Queequeg," a further allusion to Melville. Queequeg, like Ishmael, participates in the unsuccessful and ultimately fatal hunt for Moby Dick, but unlike Ishmael, Queequeg dies during the hunt. The whale, in this context, is the elusive French identity Daniel so desperately wants. Thus, according to the novel, it is Daniel's impossible pursuit of French identity that kills him. Nor is Daniel's an isolated case, a fact Smaïl makes explicit by commenting on the tendency of many Beurs to alter their appearance:
The Maghrebis who try to make themselves white are like German Jews who believed they could escape before the war by fading into the crowd. They only fooled themselves. A false nose is more easily recognized than the nose in the middle of your face. We, too, are at war. And one way or another, we too will be eliminated, if not exterminated.
The reference to the holocaust drives home yet again the assertion that Beurs in France live as permanent outsiders and that living in France kills, just as the title of the novel states.
Beyond the suggestion that racism emotionally and psychologically prevents Beurs from fully identifying with France, the novel also explores the everyday acts that render many of Maghrebi origin incapable of feeling at home in France. Paul's act of changing his identity card and Daniel's attempts to alter his appearance respond not only to an emotional need to be seen as French, but also to a need to be able to live and work in France without being subjected to discrimination and constant suspicion of wrongdoing. Paul, for example, is unable to find a job despite the fact that he speaks several languages and has an advanced degree. When he does find a job, it is delivering pizzas. And even in this job he has trouble, since many people won't open the door to him, or want to check his papers if they do. Furthermore, when he finally finds a job in a bookstore, the owner--who identifies herself as a liberal "antiracist"--repeatedly categorizes him as foreign, despite the fact that she knows he is French. This categorization comes through the woman's insistence that Paul read the works of Moroccan writers such as Driss Chraïbi and Mohammed Choukri. Completely uninterested in these authors and angered by the constant suggestion that he is Moroccan and not French, Paul lashes out:
Smaïl again undermines the notion that Beurs are exiled in French culture as the result of their own refusal to accept that culture. Like his brother, he does not identify with the culture of origin of his parents. He refuses to even read Moroccan literature. Despite this, however, others constantly identify him, even those who claim not be racist, as a foreigner. Thus, Smaïl suggests, what prevents the Beurs from being fully integrated is the inability of many in France to accept them.
To some extent, this blindness to the possibility that a person could be both French and Arab is a denial of colonial history, since it was France's colonization of the Maghreb that created the immigration from the Maghreb into France. Such forgetting also extends to the role played by the colonial armies in what is considered to be French history proper--the First and Second World Wars. Since Smaïl's grandfather fought for France during the war, to deny his Frenchness is also to deny the role played in history by his grandfather and others like him. Moreover, in the novel, Smaïl draws attention to another forgotten episode of French history--the roundup of those of Maghrebi origin by the Paris police in the Autumn of 1961--an event in which Smaïl's uncle was killed. With the mention of this event, Smaïl suggests that his uncle's death, lkke that of his brother, was merely one more chapter in a long history of violence against Maghrebis in France. Furthermore, he points out that at least two generations of his family lived and died in France. Finally, he suggests that it is the very blindness to history that allows the current racism to continue and that subjects future generations to the same sentence imposed upon him, his brother and his uncle.
It is clear from the novel, then, that Smaïl and those like him find themselves unable to identify with their country of origin--France. It is also clear, however, that they are equally unable to identify with the country of origin of their parents. Repeatedly in the novel, as already noted, both Paul and Daniel show an acute lack of knowledge of their Moroccan heritage and even a disinterest in learning about this heritage. In fact, this distancing from the heritage of their parents is the direct result of their desire to be French, since they, like the larger French culture, associate any identification with Islam, with the Arabic language and with the Maghreb as a refusal to be French. Thus, according to Smaïl's novel, it is precisely because Beurs wish to be French that they become alienated from their Maghrebi heritage, and therefore end up in a state of permanent exile. In the context of the novel, this is made clear in Daniel's futile attempts to reconnect with the culture of his parents. First and foremost, it is only as he nears death and only when he has left France for Germany that Daniel feels able to attempt such a reconnection. It is as if France itself stands in the way of such an identification. Second, and perhaps more important, because of his long period of denial with regard to his Moroccan heritage, Daniel is able to connect only with things that evoke or recall the Maghreb, but not with the Maghreb itself. He begins listening to raï, for example, and obtains a copy of the Koran, but does not read it. He also promises to observe the next Ramadan, but dies before the holiday.
Paul, however, searches for another avenue through which to define himself. The death of his brother serves as a crucial moment in his own failure to "be French" and, as a result, he undertakes two separate journeys in an attempt to find an identity. The first of these quests takes the form of a "return" to Morocco. Paul's decision to leave France for Morocco signifies a reversal. That is to say, he denies his French identity in order to assume a Maghrebi identity. Since this "return" to Morocco ends the novel, it might be assumed that Smaïl is suggesting that such a reconnection is the way for Beurs to overcome exile and to "return" to an identity that is rightfully theirs. This however is not the case. In fact, there is no real return in the logic of the text, as the novel ends with Paul on an airplane about to leave for Morocco. He never actually leaves France during the course of the narrative. What is more, in the final words of the text, Smaïl characterizes the voyage to Morocco as yet another manifestation of the search for Moby Dick--in other words, he presents the untaken voyage as one more futile quest for identity. For this reason, the voyage signifies more the desire to identify with the Morocco of his parents than any real ability to complete such an identification. This unfulfilled attempt or desire to "return" to the Maghreb in the face of rejection in France is common to Beur writing and illustrates, yet again, the degree to which many Beurs find themselves living in a state of permanent alienation. What is more, it is evidence of a profound desire for an opening of a space of identity into which they might fit.
Although the novel makes it clear that neither French identity as such, nor Maghrebi identity as such can accommodate the needs of Beurs, it does propose a space in which Beur identity may be negotiated, and this space is the text itself. Like many other Beur writers, Smaïl uses his text to communicate the need for such a space--in the words of Homi Bhaba a hybrid "third space"--with which those who live outside any particular national culture may identify. It is not only the act of writing in Vivre me tue that signifies this desire for a hybrid identity, it is the use of several languages within the body of the text, particularly English, and the intertextual play with literature in English that simultaneously suggests and works to create such an identity.
English, as noted, is present from the first line of the novel. Smaïl's assertion that he pronounces his name as in English illustrates a detachment from both the Arabic origin of the name and the potential French pronunciation of it. In part, this use of English demonstrates Smaïl's education and highlights the injustice of his inability to find work. However, as Alec G. Hargreaves has suggested, English has become an international language and therefore "English usage... allows young people of immigrant origin to position themselves both within and beyond the cultural norms dominant in France." Furthermore, Smaïl frames the entire question of identity through literature written in English. Apart from the use of Moby Dick, he also incorporates intertextual references from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Stevenson's Treasure Island, among other works. What the selected texts have in common is their ability to comment and reflect upon the situation of isolation in which Paul and other Beurs find themselves. Thus, literature in Smaïl's text becomes a transcultural space. On a more concrete level, it is through the writing of his own literary text that Paul Smaïl calls for the creation of a real space of identity that mirrors what he sees as the literary function; and because Smaïl writes his text in French, directing his project at a French audience, it is clear that he longs for the existence of such a space in France.
Vivre me tue, then, is a plea for the opening up of paradigms of French identity beyond a monocultural model. Through a presentation of the experience of those in France who are French but who fall outside such paradigms, Smaïl makes it clear that assumptions about what constitutes French identity leave the Beurs and others like them in a state of permanent exile within their own country. Like much Beur literature, Smaïl's text presents the problematic of Beur identity as a product of history and of French assumptions about what it means to be French. Furthermore, like such literature, Smaïl's text also suggests the impossibility of a "return" to a Magrhebi identity that is alien to many Beurs. Although no clear resolution to the problem of identity is presented in the text, there is a suggestion that such a resolution is possible.
 Although exact population statistics are difficult to determine because of the French government's policy of not utilizing ethnicity in census data, it has been estimated that as much as 25% of France's population is descended from immigrants, and that as many as 40% of these may be of Maghrebi origin. For more on this, see Hargreaves, Alec G. Immigration, 'race' and ethnicity in contemporary France. London: Routledge, 1995.
 The term "Beur" is verlan (reverse slang) for "Arabe." It was first popularized in 1981 by Radio Beur, and has since been used widely in political and academic discourse. Although common, the term has been contested by the very population it seeks to define. Those who object to the term find that because of its slang origin, the word "beur" has created an implied link between the French of Maghrebi descent and the poverty and violence associated with the banlieue. I have chosen to use the term here for reasons of simplicity, and also because the tensions that surround the term are highly suggestive of the situation in which this part of the French population finds itself.
 Noiriel, Gérard. Le Creuset français: histoire de l'immigration, xix-xx siècles. Paris: Seuil, 1988.
 Immigration, 'race'... p.148.
 Smaïl, Paul. Vivre me tue. Paris: Balland, 1997. p.11. All translations from the text are my own.
 Vivre me tue. p. 12.
 Vivre me tue. p. 12.
 Vivre me tue. p. 94.
 Bhaba, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. pp. 19-39.
 Immigration, 'race'... pp. 106-107.
Dayna Oscherwitzis a Ph.D candidate in French and Francophone studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in Contemporary French culture and cinema, and African and Caribbean literature in French. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation entitled "Representing the Nation: Cinema, Literature and the Struggle for National Identity in France." She has a book article entitled "Politics, Language and History in the Fiction of Gisèle Pineau" forthcoming in Continental North-South and Diaspora Connections in African Literatures (Edris Makward and Mark Lilleleht, eds.) and an article "Negotiating Extremes: Identity as Mediation in Calixthe Beyala's "Les Honneurs perdus" in Multiculturalism and Hybridity in African Literatures (Bernth Lindfors and Hal Wylie, eds.) Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press and the African Literature Association, 1998, pp.173-180. She has also contributed articles on French cinema to The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers and articles on Francophone Caribbean writers to The Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century.